Not too many recording engineers get asked to record a bridge, but that’s what artist Nate Mercereau asked engineer Zach Parkes to do; record the “humming” of San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, along with Nate playing guitar, on his recently released EP, Duets | Golden Gate Bridge.
As Mercereau explains, "I saw a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that said the Golden Gate Bridge humming is driving people crazy, and a team of engineers are working to shut it up. When I heard phone recordings of the sounds the bridge was actually making, I knew there was potential to reframe these sounds as something unique and beautiful.” At this point, the bridge had been emitting a “ghostly hum” for a year. Nate further explains, "Renovations to the bridge caused it to vibrate and ‘sing’ in high winds, reverberating loud tones throughout the bay, effectively making it the largest wind instrument in the world. While I feel the pain of San Francisco residents who are constantly subjected to this drone, there is nothing quite like hearing something so vastly large make that much sound powered by nature. It's an all-encompassing, immersive experience, even from a distance. The tones smear and crescendo as the wind picks up, and it gets so loud that at some points [that] you can feel your own body vibrate with it. To get inside and create sounds with something so large – and with that much history, including my own personal history of living in San Francisco – was an emotional experience. I could [even] see my old neighborhood from the recording location! I hope that by sharing these duets I can offer a recorded artifact of a world-renowned monument, and also an alternate perspective on its reverberations as something special to be appreciated while it's happening.”
On May 18th and 19th of 2021, Nate and Zach set up in the Marin Headlands to record Duets in an old bunker off of Conzelman Road, hiking down a dirt trail with their gear. The tracking was all done live with no overdubs. Nate explains the setup, “I'm using a Godin Freeway guitar with a Roland GK-1 pickup installed, a Roland GR-300 [guitar synthesizer], a Korg expression pedal [foot controller], a Digitech XP400, a [Gamechanger Audio] PLUS pedal, and a BOSS ME-70 ME-70 [Guitar Multiple Effects pedalboard]. I have a DI after the synth to get the dry signal. We recorded into Ableton Live through a Focusrite 8-channel Scarlett interface into a laptop. We had a Tascam DR-40 and a Zoom H2 as ambient mics, as well as an AKG Perception 200 surrounded by a tilted, foam-filled Pelican case with a blanket draped [over] for muffling. All microphones had windscreens or clothing wrapped around them, or a combination of both. Everything was powered by a car battery and an inverter.”
Zach goes on to explain some of the complexities involved in recording a massive vibrating bridge, “From the start, the main consideration was location. The trick was finding a place that was close enough to hear the bridge on a windy day, but also sheltered enough from that wind to get a clear recording. When you’re recording something like a piano or a violin in a regular live room, it’s common to move microphones a few inches at a time and explore (potentially vastly) different tones. We employed basically the same approach with this, but scaled up in a huge way because our “piano harp” was about 9,000 feet long. So instead of moving a mic a few inches, you wind up driving from San Francisco to Marin County. We spent a lot of time exploring different locations and doing tests with field recorders to find the ideal spot, and in doing so, realized that the sound the bridge makes was just as much a part of the ‘sonic environment’ as the traffic driving across it and the planes flying overhead. We did do some EQ’ing to bring up the frequencies the bridge is resonating at, but we intentionally left in a fair amount of that ambient noise to, hopefully, help give listeners the feeling of actually standing there on that hillside, on that afternoon, listening to the bridge sing. We had three microphones for ambient sound that I mixed, using a blend of each. There wasn't much adjustment of the microphones necessary once I had them set in the mix in an accurate way. All mix choices were made to preserve what it was like to be there during the recording.”
Once they were done recording, Nate took the files back to his studio and worked on finalizing the EP. “The biggest production moves involved editing the hours of material. Throughout the recording there were motifs I found myself returning to in the improvisations. We recognized these as being the themes that should be the Duets. As the piece progresses, similar themes return in different harmonic and emotional contexts. There was some EQ’ing necessary in the low and high end so the bridge could sing through the wind. I slightly notched up the gain on the bridge frequencies to further bring them out in the mix process.”
The end result of Nate and Zach’s work is surprisingly beautiful. It might be easy to dismiss as novelty, but once listened to it holds up as a solid entry in the ambient music world in the Brain Eno [Tape Op #85] and Daniel Lanois [#37, #127] tradition. At times it reminds me of ambient instrumental moments by Sigur Rós [#41], and at other times evokes Richard Wright’s synthesizer performances on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. It’s a fun record to play for friends; “Have you heard the new album from the Golden Gate bridge?”